An interview with a clinical psychologist

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Dr Derek Lee has been a clinical psychologist for over 30 years. He is now semi-retired, spending much of his time on various creative pursuits. Derek likes to jokingly refer to himself as a ‘top psychologist’ which is probably more reassuring to his clients than his other nickname, ‘Psychodel’. Luckily for me, I have always just known him as ‘Dad’.

Are you ready to learn about his life, psychology and probably your life too? Read on…

How did you get into clinical psychology?
It was a long path. I first got interested in psychology through studying English literature in sixth form. I found studying human motivation and character absolutely fascinating. (I still maintain that you can learn more about the human condition from reading a classic piece of literature than a psychology textbook… that’s just my little maverick view.) That fascination led to me thinking of psychology as a topic for further study, but not necessarily as a career. I didn’t really know what kind of careers were available. I wasn’t very good at my A-levels so I only applied to university at 24 as a mature student. In the meantime I worked as a nurse in learning disabilities. That gave me a really good insight into the potential of working as a clinical psychologist. I had a placement in the psychology department of the hospital I was working in and it reaffirmed my interest. I applied to Hull University to do my first degree. Again, it was a long path because I wasn’t successful the first time I applied to do clinical training after my degree so I stayed on at Hull to do my PhD. I was then fortunate enough to get accepted on the Edinburgh course to do my masters in clinical psychology. From there, I’ve never looked back.

How do you think it has changed for people wanting to become clinical psychologists now?
I think people now have a much clearer idea of what  they want from a career and have a better understanding of what the career offers. The competition is just as intense now as it always has been; too many applicants chasing too few posts. There’s a more defined path now too. Undergraduate psychology students aspiring to be clinical psychologists know they will need to spend two to three years after their degree getting relevant experience to get onto a clinical doctorate.  As a profession, things have sharpened up and become more academic, more research-focused. It used to be a two-year master’s course and now it’s a three-year doctoral course.

Once you get into the profession there’s a whole of new set of challenges for people working within the NHS. The philosophy in those services has changed since I started working. From a personal point of view, I don’t think it has been for the better. The conditions my colleagues work under are very intense. It’s a battle between demands for services and the resources that are there. Making decisions about who will be seen and managing waiting lists, having your performance monitored and constant reporting that we didn’t have to do in the past. Personally, I’m pleased to be retiring and not at the beginning of my career because people starting their posts now face a tough challenge both individually in terms of handling their own work demands but also psychology as a profession is different now as well. There are many specialities within psychology and there’s a risk of losing that power as a one-voice profession. That’s a very personal opinion.

What do you remember of your first experiences being a clinical psychologist?
Once I had completed my training and started having my own patients, I felt a sense of pride and excitement. I knew that it was what I had been working towards all those years. I didn’t feel too nervous because I was well-managed. I had supervisors to ask questions to. The problems clients presented with back then were much simpler than the complex problems people present with in services now. Clinical psychologists just starting out probably have it a bit harder than I did.

Why did you decide to specialise in addiction?
That came from my long path into psychology. When I was doing my nursing in a learning disabilities inpatient unit there was heavy use of medication. So I got interested in the medication that was being used in that kind of setting. That followed through into my undergraduate studies where I had the opportunity to do psychopharmacology as a special option. My PhD was in anti-epileptic drugs so it was a continuing theme. During my time as a postgraduate I spent time going to local drug and alcohol treatment units and talked to people there and my interest grew. I was fascinated by how external chemicals, brain function, behaviour and emotions interact and thinking about how those drug interactions at the molecular level were having an effect on the individual, their family and communities. From a theoretical and practical point of view it’s about recognising those interactions and how they interact with the wider social and political system. High-up decisions have an impact on the person I’m seeing in the clinic who has a cocaine problem.  It all connects and I love it. It’s about seeing the bigger picture. After three years of working in the community mental health team as a qualified clinical psychologist, a post was advertised in the specialist substance abuse and alcohol team so I decided to go for it. I recommend having that general experience first to clinical psychologists starting now.

Would you say you’re addicted to anything? EastEnders perhaps?
It’s not an addiction (laughing), I don’t put it above everything else. It is a pleasure and enjoyment. In a sense I’m addicted to Facebook, I like to get likes on my posts and get that dopamine hit. I wouldn’t give up food for it though!

What’s your preferred response to the common “Oh no, can you read my mind?” reaction from people learning you’re a psychologist?
It depends on the setting and the person. Sometimes I’ll agree and say yes and get a little pleasure from the shock on their face. Normally I say “no, I’m not Derren Brown”. Sometimes I try to explain that psychology is just about understanding people, their motivations and understanding why people behave the way they do, but that’s all. I actually made a cartoon about this on my website.

What was the motivation behind your website Psychological Delights?
I wanted to share resources with other people working in mental health such as psychologists, counsellors and mental health workers whilst recognising that people who have psychological problems might also come across the site and so provided links to external resources and services.

Being creative is clearly important to you, why do you think that is?
I find writing and photography to be a good distraction from day to day worries, an escape from reality. That’s what creativity is: trying to create something new and find new ways of understanding things. I think it’s something that’s shared by lots of psychologists. Creativity is important for clinical psychologists for moving from the textbooks to real life situations when you never know what someone is going to say. You have to come up with your own interpretations and responses which I find enjoyable and a satisfying part of the job. That’s not something the textbooks can tell you. Creativity helps with teaching too. A lot of the psychological language and concepts are quite difficult so coming up with a helpful analogy or metaphor to find another way of getting those ideas across is also very satisfying.

What is your approach to teaching?
My approach to teaching is collaborative. I try to interact with students as much as possible. I like to be creative in my teaching and use humour, successfully for the most part.

When are you happiest?
I’m happiest on a sunny beach but I can’t do that every day living in the midlands so losing myself in my favourite TV shows, reading a book or being absorbed in my creative pursuits are the times I feel best. Also, when I’m spending time with my family of course!

If you wrote a book, what would it be about?
Well, I’m starting a new website. It’s inspired by more recent group work using self-help ideas and will be geared towards people who are struggling with emotional difficulties or wanting to understand themselves better, to give them a crash course in personal psychology. Any book I write would be along those lines, how people can improve their lives and make changes. Change, of course is a key topic in addiction and something I’m particularly interested in.

What do you think is a common thing people get wrong about self-help?
This is a tough question and I’m not an expert in this but I think that there are three main things people get wrong when it comes to self-help books:
1. They buy the book but don’t read it
2. They read the book but don’t put any of the advice into practice
3. They don’t think flexibly enough about the advice that could help them and the advice they know won’t be of use to them. Self-help books can present a one-size fits all approach, but in reality, everyone is different

Visit www.psychodelights.com to read more about Dr Derek Lee and access resources.

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